Agriculture in the Sunshine State ranges from tropical fruits to leafy green vegetables, with many crops in between. Launched in 2021, the plant breeding doctoral program teaches University of Florida College of Agricultural and Life Sciences students how to use traditional and contemporary breeding methodologies to create new cultivars of plants that will contribute to a more food-secure world. The success of the program is seen through many student achievements, like that of Melanie Cabrera, a plant breeding Ph.D. student and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.
Cabrera’s journey into the world of plant breeding began with her undergraduate education. Equipped with a Gator degree in plant science, Cabrera began her Ph.D. with prior research experience, a foundation of plant genetics knowledge, and a contagious zeal to improve the food we eat.
“My plant science degree connected really nicely to what I’m doing now,” Cabrera said. “I discovered a lot of opportunities through my program, like getting to do a Research Experience for Undergraduates, where I spent three months in St. Louis at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. It was after I came back from that where I thought, I should do grad school.”
Cabrera’s current research focuses on developing cultivars of broccoli that are more adaptable to Florida growing conditions.
“Broccoli is a really nutritious food, and really good for brain health, but right now almost all of the broccoli we eat is grown on the west coast,” she said. “Broccoli has a really short growing season in Florida right now, so I’m trying to find ways to make growing broccoli more successful for Florida farmers.”
As part of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, Cabrera has been recognized as an outstanding graduate student who will contribute significantly to both scientific innovation and teaching. The five-year fellowship provides three years of financial support to eliminate financial barriers Cabrera might experience in pursuit of her education.
“Our college has world-class faculty teaching and mentoring our students, but having a student be selected and recognized by the NSF as a Graduate Research Fellowship Program is a testament to the caliber of our students,” said CALS Dean Elaine Turner. “Since its launch just two years ago, the plant breeding doctoral program has seen many student successes, and we are excited Melanie chose the University of Florida to earn her degree.”
Even though Cabrera is only in her first semester as a graduate student, she is already mentoring undergraduate students with her broccoli research, presenting research at conferences, and becoming a leader in her plant breeding program. With Cabrera’s help, plant breeders across the world are making food more nutritious and accessible for all.